Just who was this guy named Confucius
One day Confucius said, “I would rather not speak. Tzu-kung asked, “If you do not speak, what do we have to record?” Confucius replied, “Does Heaven speak? The seasons travel their course, and creatures all flourish. What does Heaven say?” (Lunyu:17.19).
I am often asked in China… why don’t I write books about Confucius as I have about the shaman, I Ching and Taoism (Lao, Chuang, and Lieh Tzu)? I think it is that in now knowing Confucius, there becomes a much bigger story to tell. Confucius had the uncanny ability to connect the dots of history and was the ultimate storyteller. It was here he left his legacy and became immortal through his virtue and traits of benevolence. He lived in the words he spoke leaving others to acknowledge his wisdom.
It is as if the work of the historian, or some would say the teacher or scholar, is never-ending. As if knowledge and wisdom cannot be foretold as a haphazard affair. What is to be remembered and what stories are to be told goes without saying. That while things appear to happen simply on their own, they are in reality following the Tao. With this it becomes our own consciousness that creates the world, the universe we are here to tell about and come to know. It is like following cause and effect and building a house with a strong foundation. As if you are writing and living for the ages. Perhaps not even your immediate audience, who may only have or see glimpses of your intent. But for those who come forward to gain understanding as to what it all means to history and more importantly their own.
As if all great writing ended with the Qin Dynasty in 214 BC after Emperor Qin Shi Huang burned all the books and buried the noted scholars of the age in Xian, most everything had to be re-constructed from memory. As if trying to wipe the slate clean to begin anew thinking nothing that occurred before could equal what was to come.
Emperor Qin was famous for the terracotta warriors who he felt would lead his way in immortality. Most feel he died of mercury poisoning in his quest. Even today, more than two thousand years later, his tomb nearby cannot be approached due to it being surrounded by mercury poisoning. What he thought would help him live forever is what killed him. All great writing was to be destroyed, except for that of Confucius.
Dujiangyan, was an irrigation project completed during the Warring States period of China by the State of Qin. It is located on the Min River in Sichuan, China, north of Chengdu I visited in June 2015 before visiting Emperor Qin in Xian a few weeks later. Although a reinforced concrete weir has replaced Li Bing’s original weighted bamboo baskets, the layout of the infrastructure remains the same and is still in use today to irrigate over 5,300 square kilometers of land in the region. The strength of the Qin state was greatly increased by the Legalist reforms of Shang Yang during the Warring States period in the mid and late third century BC. Its 15 years was the shortest major dynasty in Chinese history, consisting of only two emperors, but inaugurated an imperial system that lasted, with interruption and adaptation, until 1912. It would be the Confucian philosophy that directed that system that would serve to hold the country together over the centuries. The Qin were followed by the Han dynasty. Exemplary at the time was Wang Pi, who died a mysterious death at the age of twenty-six. Later, his works became required study in the examination system. His version of the Lao Tzu (the Tao Te Ching), became the accepted version of the proper way to govern. Thankfully, there were a few around like Wang Pi who wrote new versions of Lao Tzu’s work and I Ching. As one age of enlightenment ended, it made way for the blossoming of another that was seen later in the Han and Tang dynasties when Buddhism began to flourish. In 645 AD Master Xuanzang returned from India with Buddhist sutras to Xian to what would be known as the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
These translations to Chinese would be called transliterations, seventy-five volumes from Sanskrit to Chinese. Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching was translated then to Sanskrit and sent to India at this time. Eternal truths told as if someone or something must serve as if the spark that must come forward to re-tell the stories and memories of the past, so that we now don’t forget. China would never be the same. But, it would still be adapting with Confucius that led the way.
Until recently, there were only two mediums of communication. Only the oral history passed from generation to generation, versions of what may have been said and symbols of what was to become the written word. That which is generally conveying someone else’s explanation of what was said and/or meant. But it was the oral history of the tradition of the shaman and eventually what Confucius may have said and what is said he wrote, that ultimately carried the day. Confucius was not so much the originator but was adept as the propagator of what was important in the past that needed to be conveyed forward. China was known as the Middle Kingdom, they had fought barbarians to the north for centuries and built small sections of what would become the Great Wall over time.
The teachings and works of Confucius brought order and structure giving the Emperor “divine right” to guide what would come to be known as succeeding dynasties. Confucius always looked to the rites of the past in order to understand the way forward. This worked for almost two thousand years until the British came along wanting fine porcelain and tea to carry back to England. The Middle Kingdom was no longer the center of the universe as they had come to know.
Its strength became its biggest weakness because they could not readily adjust to the influences of the outside world. Just as the Mongols had overtaken the Great Wall five hundred years earlier, China was always prone to hold onto the past. To what some would say the “feudalism” created by Confucian ideology. However, once as adjustment was made, China always reverted to it true heritage. Every age converted Confucius to match their own objectives through the use of “commentaries” to relay what Confucius really meant… This is never truer than today. First and foremost, over time, history teaches us to become pragmatic. Learning from mistakes of the past to create a better future for ourselves and others. Remembering that there is nothing new under the sun as we acknowledge the inevitable change that must occur.
Confucius lived from 551 to 479 BC, but the history of Qufu goes back to include the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) who lived from 2698–2598 BC and Ji Dan, the Duke of Zhou in the 11th Century BC. All three have temples, i.e., memorials in their honor here in Qufu. Under Emperor Wudi, who ruled 141 to 87 BC, Confucianism was institutionalized and Wudi instituted the Imperial Academy to promote Confucian philosophy. He ruled that to be an official scholar, people had to learn the Confucian classic texts called the Five Classics. According to tradition, the Five Classics were penned by Confucius. Modern scholars, however, doubt that any of the material can really be ascribed to Confucius himself. In actuality, what Confucius did was to update versions on the above texts that had been written by others hundreds of years earlier. Most notably, was the Book of Rites and Book of Songs that were from Ji Dan, the Duke of Zhou who also was from Qufu, five hundred years earlier.
The Five Classics:
- The I Ching, also known as Classic of Changes or Book of Changes, is an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. Possessing a history of more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretation, the I Ching is an influential text read throughout the world, providing inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art. Originally a divination manual in the Western Zhou period (1000–750 BC), over the course of the Warring States period and early imperial period (500–200 BC) it was transformed into a cosmological text with a series of philosophical commentaries known as the “Ten Wings”. (It can be found here on my website under the tab The Dazhan – The meaning of the I Ching). After becoming part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching was the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East, and eventually took on an influential role in Western understanding of Eastern thought. I wrote my own version of the I Ching in 1994, it was published in China in 2004 and appears here on my website.
- The Classic of Poetry, also Shijing or Shih-ching, translated variously as the Book of Songs, Book of Odes, or simply known as the Odes or Poetry is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, comprising 305 works dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC.
- The Book of Rites, a re-creation of the original Classic of Rites of Confucius lost during the Qin book purge. The Book of Rites or Liji is a collection of texts describing the social forms, administration, and ceremonial rites of the Zhou dynasty as they were understood in the Warring States and the early Han. The Book of Rites, along with the Rites of Zhou (Zhouli) and the Book of Etiquette and Rites (Yili), which are together known as the “Three Li (Sanli),” constitute the ritual (li) section of the Five Classics which lay at the core of the traditional Confucian canon.
- The Book of History or Documents, (Shujing, earlier Shu-king) or Classic of History, also known as the Shangshu, is one of the Five Classics of ancient Chinese literature. It is a collection of rhetorical prose attributed to figures of ancient China, and served as the foundation of Chinese political philosophy for over 2,000 years. Title page of annotated Shujingedition printed in 1279, held by Taiwan’s National Central Library.
- The Spring and Autumn Annals, or Chunqiu is an ancient Chinese chronicle that has been one of the core Chinese classics since ancient times. The Annals is the official chronicle of the State of Lu and covers a 241-year period from 722 to 481 BC and gave examples of how, when commoners are obsessed with material wealth, instead of the idealism of a man who “makes things serve him”, they were “reduced to the service of things”.
Historically, what Confucius is most noted for were the Analects, (which literally means “Edited Conversations”), also known as the Analects of Confucius. It is a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher and his contemporaries, traditionally believed to have been compiled and written by Confucius followers. It is believed to have been written during the Warring States period (475–221 BC), and it achieved its final form during the mid Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). By the early Han dynasty the Analects was considered merely a “commentary” on the Five Classics, but the status of the Analects grew to be one of the central texts of Confucianism by the end of that dynasty. Confucius “teachings” promoted the idea of the innate noble nature of man, later conveyed by a Confucian scholar named Dong Zhongshu, who added some Legalist ideas to the teaching of Mencius. He and later emperors approved Dong Zhongshu’s new strain of Confucianism for its emphasis on the Mandate of Heaven. Confucianism’s Mandate of Heaven was a key concept underpinning imperial legitimacy. Heaven chose a particular man and his descendants to be mediators between heaven and the people. The man was to be like a god. This became the justification for the emperor to assume the throne at the behest of heaven giving him authority over all. Heaven’s decision was to be known through the interpreting of natural omens, circumstances, and an almanac that followed the sun, moon, and stars that would foretell the future.
Today Qufu is considered a major tourist destination in China because of its five thousand years of history, primarily because of Confucius. It is the only city in the world with three World Heritage sites, the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion, and Confucius cemetery where over 100,000 of his descendants are buried. Qufu is also known as the home of the Yellow Emperor and Ji Dan, the Duke of Zhou. The City of Lu (Qufu), was always the center of attention for dynasty after dynasty with Emperors using Confucius teachings to support the claim to the Mandate of Heaven described above. It is my own home in China where I have taught and have many friends. I had an office and apartment across the street from the Confucius cemetery for a few years. I would sit in my third-floor office and look over the wall and peer into history. Or as Confucius says in the beginning of this blog… “Does Heaven speak? The seasons travel their course, and creatures all flourish. What does Heaven say?”
There is a very famous picture here of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), who came to Qufu and attempted the destroy all things pertaining to the past. Their slogan was “everything old is bad”. Meaning ancient teachings of Confucius and others must make way for new ideas and ways of thinking. The Red Guard came to Qufu as they went everywhere attempting to denigrate past history in China. It was only when Premier Chou En-lie intervened that much was saved. After the dust cleared it was recognized that the idea that “what we believe is our greatest weakness is actually our greatest strength” echoed true again. As if history was repeating itself, reminiscent of Emperor Qin of the terra cotta warriors fame, who tried to re-define history in his own image going forward. It didn’t work in 200 BC or in twentieth century China with the Red Guard and cultural revolution either.
How many times must we see extremes leaning to the right or left before we learn that it is the middle ground that saves us? That seemingly every so-called political or religious effort that seems to know how to proceed only serves to get in the way when things outside of ourselves, not our inner virtue, are allowed to guide us going forward. With the age-old axiom of cause and effect and doing unto others as we want done to us as the ultimate in nature’s sway. As we look to the shaman and sage who has seen and done it all before. With our task only to find the silence so that we too may stop and listen. Perhaps it is as nature has always told us, that extremes have endings and cannot last. And maybe just learning from the past and what becoming pragmatic can do for ourselves.
As I continue to go through my own version of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching that I wrote in May/June 2000 and my book, Thoughts on becoming a Sage, The Guidebook for leading a virtuous Life, I am asked to tell… just who was this Lao Tzu and why is he so important? I know I spoke of this last time, but some may have missed so it bears repeating. Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching was the culmination of thousands of years of philosophical thought of what was to become Taoism thanks in part to copies found in tombs of those who were buried with copies of it in China. There are eighty-one verses in the Tao Te Ching. Verses 42 and 43 appear below. Verses 1 through 41 were seen here on my most recent posts. The balance will be seen here over the coming months.
A partial preview can be seen on the Lao Tzu and Taoism tab here on my website. Ultimately, it is what the sage has learned and then in turn taught others along the way that guides us. The commentaries below are meant to be read as a discussion between Lao Tzu and those interested who have thought deeply about the text itself. The quotes below and references to their authors are from Red Pine’s, Lao Tzu’s Taoteching.
Thoughts on becoming a Sage
Verse 42 – Emulating the Tao as you give birth to all around you
The Tao gives birth to one. One gives birth to two. Two gives birth to three and three give birth to ten thousand things. When I as one embraces the Tao and open my heart and mind to the universe I become complete as my focus remains on the horizon.
When I show another person the way, we walk in unison guided by what we have been taught. When we two brighten the path of the third all things become possible and in unison we give birth to a thousand things. As we too become the world’s teachers.
With yin at our backs and yang in our embrace we look for harmony. What the world hates we love. Just by what some gain in losing others will lose by gaining keeping the world forever in balance. Remaining fully enmeshed in the Tao, the sage simply follows his mentor, Lao Tzu, the ultimate teacher of the way. As such, we are reminded to reduce our desires, remain humble and practice the virtue of harmony.
Letting these three be our guide we quietly give birth to all around us. ##
Ho-Shang Kung says, “The Tao given birth to the beginning. One gives birth to yin and yang. Yin and yang gives birth to the breath between, the mixture of clear and turbid.
These three breaths divide themselves into Heaven, Earth, and Man and together give birth to the ten thousand things. These elemental breaths are what keep the ten thousand things relaxed and balanced. The organs in our chests, the marrow in our bones, the spaces inside plants allow these breaths passage and make long life possible.”
Lu Hui-Ch’ing says, “Dark and unfathomable in yin. Bright and perceptible in yang. As soon as we are born, we all turn our backs on the dark and unfathomable yin and turn toward the bright and perceptible yang. Fortunately, we keep ourselves in harmony with the breath between.”
Te-Ch’ing says, “The orphans, ’the widowed, ‘and ‘the destitute’ are titles of self-effacement. Rulers who are not self-effacing are not looked up to by the world. Thus by losing, some people gain. Rulers who are only aware of themselves might possess the world, but the world rebels against them. Thus by gaining, some people lose. We all share this Tao, but we don’t know it except through instruction. What others teach, Lao Tzu also teaches. But Lao Tzu excels others in teaching us to reduce our desires and to be humble, to practice the virtue of harmony, and to let this be our teacher.
Verse 43 – Mirroring the Tao
Go forth this day without form or substance and teach without words that otherwise may cloud the way. Remaining free to come and go even to places where appearances show no room as you lift the spirit of those around you and help all to find their way.
Appearing to do nothing. Remaining behind the scenes as the ten thousand things are transformed and completed. Imitating the Tao. Mirroring the Tao my spirit soars with the dragons and prospers, you become speechless, following the Tao you take no action. Just as energy from the sun brings life to all it finds – it cannot penetrate a closed door or a covered window.
The light of our spirit reaches everywhere and nourishes everything once we have opened the doors and windows of our soul to the ultimate that calls us. Allowing the weakest to overtake the strongest and the strongest to find their true place in the universe. Succeeding without effort everything under heaven becomes one. ##
Lao Tzu says. “Nothing in the world is weaker than water, but against the hard and the strong – nothing excels it” (78).
Huai-Nan Tzu says, “The light of the sun shines across the Four Seas but cannot penetrate a closed door or a covered window. While the light of the spirit reaches everywhere and nourishes everything.” He then adds, “Illumination once asked Nonexistence if it actually existed or not. Nonexistence made no response. Unable to perceive any sign if its existence, Illumination sighed and said, ‘I, too, do not exist, but I cannot equal the nonexistence of Nonexistence’” (12).
Li Hsi-Chai says, “Things are not actually things. What we call ‘strong’ is a fiction. Once it reaches its limit, it returns to nothing. Thus, the weakest thing in the world is able to overcome the strongest thing in the world. Or do you think the reality of nonexistence cannot break through the fiction of existence?”
Wang Pi says, “There is nothing breath cannot enter and nothing water cannot penetrate. What does not exist cannot be exhausted. And what is perfectly weak cannot be broken. From this we can infer that doing nothing brings success.”
Ho-Shang Kung says, “’What doesn’t exist’ refers to the Tao. The Tao has no form or substance. Hence it can come and go, even where there is not any space. It can fill the spirit and help all creatures. We don’t see it do anything, and yet the ten thousand things are transformed and completed. Thus, we realize the benefit of mankind of doing nothing. Imitating the Tao, we don’t speak. We follow it with our bodies. Imitating the Tao, we don’t act. We care for ourselves, and our spirit prospers. We care for our country, and the people flourish. And we do this without effort of trouble. But few can match the Tao in caring for things by doing nothing.”